Acclaimed and award-winning clarinettist Robert Plane presents a highly-spiced collection of Hungarian music by Bartok, Rozsa, Weiner, Dohnanyi and Kurtag.
Includes the world premiere recording of a piece by Tibor Serly, better known as the completer of Bartok’s Viola Concerto. Plane discovered the piece quite by accident, through a chance meeting with saxophonist Chris Gradwell who had originally intended to give the UK premiere. "I couldn’t believe that such an atmospheric and infectiously witty piece had lain undiscovered for so long.” The music embraces the spirit of Hollywood, albeit tongue-in-cheek.
Plane is joined by Gould Piano Trio members Lucy Gould and Benjamin Frith in Bartok’s Contrasts (1938), which was commissioned by Benny Goodman for him to play with violinist Joseph Szigeti. The two outer rhythmic dance movements are interspersed with a slower ‘Relaxation’ with the addition of piano, which Bartok added in 1940.
The most substantial work on the album is Dohnányi’s Sextet in C major, Op.37, written in 1935, his final major chamber composition. Demanding considerable virtuosity from its players, it is very much in the post-Brahms style with which Dohnányi was most comfortable.
We are so used to the gritty and astringent style of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) that it is often overlooked that he started from a musical and aesthetic background very similar to that of his apparent polar opposite, the precociously gifted but conventional Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960). Indeed, the two attended the same Catholic grammar school in Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia), Dohnányi just four years ahead of Bartók, and both pupils played the organ at the church attached to the school. Bartók was very conscious of the early and spectacular success enjoyed by Dohnányi, whose piano quintet, written while still a student at the Budapest Academy of Music, so impressed Brahms that the German composer helped arrange for its premiere in Vienna; after graduating, Dohnányi became almost instantly an international success, performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in London’s Queen’s Hall under the baton of Hans Richter. Bartók hoped to emulate this success, and while in his teens composed several Brahms-influenced works including a piano quintet written just two years after Dohnányi’s. He also greatly admired Dohnányi’s piano playing, and took lessons with him; their relationship was sufficiently cordial for Dohnányi to conduct several of Bartók’s early works.
By the time Bartók came to compose his witty Contrasts in 1938, his music had been transformed by his encounter with and deep study of Hungarian folk music. Paradoxically, though Bartók had begun his adult life as a staunch nationalist – even before his encounter with authentic folk music – he had since become disgusted with the nationalist and anti-Semitic politics of late-1930s Hungary, and particularly with his country’s increasing alignment with Hitler and the Nazis (a distaste shared by Dohnányi). At least as early as November 1937, Bartók had been seriously considering emigration to the United States. Thus the commission from the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, who asked for a two movement Rhapsody for clarinet, violin and piano to be performed by himself and the American jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman (who was to pay the commission), seemed most timely.
Szigeti had met Goodman at the Riviera in the summer of 1938, while the clarinettist was touring Europe, and Goodman had proposed that Bartók should write a work suitable for recording on a 12-inch 78rpm disc, each movement being just long enough to fit on one side. Szigeti further specified in his letter to Bartók: “If possible, the composition should consist of two independent parts (with the possibility of playing them separately – like the first rhapsody for violin) and of course we hope that it will also contain brilliant clarinet and violin cadenzas.” Szigeti arranged that several of Goodman’s jazz trio records were sent to Bartók so he should become familiar with the clarinettist’s style. Bartók promptly fulfilled the commission, writing the completion date of 24 September 1938 at the end of the score. The work, at that time simply titled Rhapsody, then consisted of just two movements, as Szigeti had specified – that is, the first and third movements of the work in its final form – titled ‘Verbunkos’ and ‘Sebes’ (a fast dance). Verbunkos – derived from the German ‘Werbung’ (recruiting) – is the Hungarian dance, traditionally performed by gypsy bands, that was used by the Imperial Army’s recruiting parties to entice young men to join their forces. Bartók’s two-movement Rhapsody was first performed, in New York, on 9 January 1939 by Szigeti, Goodman and the pianist Endre Petri. Bartók added what is now the second movement, ‘Pihenö’ (Relaxation), and himself joined Szigeti and Goodman in New York to play the piano part for the first complete performance and subsequent recording of Contrasts in April 1940. A curious feature of the third movement is that both clarinettist and violinist change instruments, the violinist initially playing an instrument tuned G sharp-D-A-E flat (creating a ‘mistuned’ effect) before taking up a violin with the usual tuning of G-D-A-E, while the clarinettist starts on a B flat instrument, alternating this with the A-pitched instrument used in other movements.
Miklós Rózsa (1907-95), born in Budapest, is now widely remembered as a major composer of film music, scoring Ben-Hur and Hitchcock’s Spellbound; yet he was also a distinguished composer of concert music. Studying violin from the age of five, Rózsa’s talent was recognised by a Reger pupil, Hermann Grabner, who persuaded Rózsa’s father to allow him to attend the Leipzig Conservatory. Since childhood Rózsa had relished the folk music played by locals on his father’s country estate in the county of Nógrád, situated at the foot of the Mátra mountains. As Rózsa recalled, “The whole area was inhabited by the Palóc, an indigenous Magyar people with their own dialect, customs and costumes (on Sundays the girls wore some 8-10 layers of skirts!).” The folk music performed by the Palóc, as he recalled, was often unaccompanied; it was with this style of music in mind that in the 1957, when living and working in Hollywood, Rózsa composed his Sonatina for Clarinet. Its first movement, in the form of a theme and variations, is followed by a Vivo e giocoso which well demonstrates the clarinet’s agility.
Tibor Serly (1901-78) was only four when his family moved from Hungary to New York, and he became a naturalised American citizen in 1911. Yet Serly affirmed his Hungarian roots by returning to Budapest to study at the Academy, where his teachers included Bartók and Kodály, graduating in 1925. On returning to America he made his career both as a violist and a conductor. When Bartók emigrated to the United States, Serly became closely associated with the great composer, finishing the orchestration of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and completing the Viola Concerto from the disordered sketches Bartók had left at his death. Given Serly’s training and this association, it is no surprise to hear something of Bartók’s style in his Chamber Folk Music (1949), which arranges several Hungarian folk songs from the Bartók-Kodály collection: one may hear this particularly in the opening, the shivering violin tremolandos and piano figurations recalling the night insect music typical of Bartók’s work.
A leading composer in post-war Hungary, György Kurtág (b1926) moved to Budapest in 1946 out of admiration for Bartók and there studied at the Academy under several of the great composer’s colleagues. Kurtág has declared: “My mother tongue is Bartók and Bartók's mother tongue was Beethoven.” Kurtág’s pithy and aphoristic style is well exemplified in his Hommage à R. Sch.. Composed for the same trio of instruments used in Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, the movements include the names of various characters from Schumann’s world such as Kreisler, Florestan, Eusebius and Raro. Each of the first five movements lasts less than a minute, and they present powerful contrasts in terms of character and sonority; the work then ends with the eerie ‘Abschied’ (Farewell), a movement in the form of a passacaglia whose theme is first played on the piano.
One of Kurtág’s teachers was Leó Weiner (1885-1960), a fellow-student of Bartók and Kodály’s at the Academy of Music in Budapest, who himself became a legendary professor of chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (as the Academy was renamed in 1925). Although he did not follow his colleagues into folk song collecting, Weiner’s music reflects something of their influence. One may hear the gentle pastoral style of Kodály in the first of his Two Movements for clarinet and piano, ‘The Woeful Shepherd’; yet more folk-like with its middle-eastern inflections is the lively second piece, ‘Barn Dance’.
So we turn to Dohnányi, Hungary’s reactionary yet benevolent leading musician of the early 20th century. His Sextet in C major, Op. 37, written in 1935 (that is, just three years before Bartók began composing Contrasts!), was his final major chamber composition. Demanding considerable virtuosity from its players, it is very much in the post-Brahms style with which Dohnányi was most comfortable. Yet it is far from complacent in character. The opening Allegro appassionato, though in standard sonata form, launches with turbulent cello arpeggios above which a horn dolefully sounds a tritone-tinged motif, which is then taken up by the other instruments. The following ‘Intermezzo’ movement is no pastoral idyll, but harmonically unsettled and eerie in a manner which to English ears anticipates late Vaughan Williams – a stylistic echo all the more pronounced when a sinister march is then introduced. More straight forward in manner – initially at least – is the third movement, a Brahms-style theme (played by clarinet) and a set of variations. Even in this movement a sense of disquiet surfaces from time to time, though when music from the opening Allegro appassionato is recalled there is a sense that the turbulent sea has now calmed, even as the tritone motif reappears as a bridge to the finale. As if to celebrate the storm having passed, the final movement is a playful and good-natured romp. Towards the end, the horn recalls its very first theme, but now transformed into a triumphant fanfare with the tritone replaced with a clean-cut fourth.